Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Quirky Road Trip Stuff

          Don’t ever let me board a tour bus. I answer to my own schedule and decide where I want to go. I like to find the odd-ball stuff (yes, I have seen the world’s largest ball of twine). The best times are when I wander the streets in a foreign city or a little rural town in the Midwest just to soak in the local vibe — to take a walk and see which way the wind blows. It is amazing what you can find.
          I’ve written sanitized travelogues, but the nitty-gritty is for me. That’s what makes travel what it is — a unique set of experiences. Here are some of the funky happenings on a recent road trip with my wife to Arkansas.

Quirky Road Trip Stuff
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          The waitress at the restaurant wore a big smile and stood with her arms wrapped around the menus. Her western-style get-up-and-go outfit matched the dining room which had a Country and Western theme, complete with varnished hitching posts and wooden fence railings, along with a dose of corrugated metal walls. “Do you want to sit in the restaurant area, or do you want to eat in the bar and watch the roping exhibition?”
          This was the place that our B&B host had recommended for dinner, Lucky J’s Steakhouse and Arena, located two miles southeast of Carthage, Missouri. I had no idea that a full view of the arena was available from the eating establishment. I should have taken a clue from the parking lot full of giant pick-up trucks and horse trailers.
          “I gotta see this!” I told her. She directed us to the bar area where stools were lined up along a countertop/rail that faced a large expanse of glass. Yee-haw! In front of us was a full view of cowboys twirling their ropes while riding their horses at full speed towards an escaping steer. The thirty cowboys each took their turn as a steer was released into the arena.
          Giddy-up! In all our travels, this was a first: a steakhouse meal with a view of cowboys, horses and steers kicking up dust and manure on the other side of the glass. It was a real wish-you-were-here moment.
Jasper County Courthouse - Carthage, Missouri
           On our visit to downtown Carthage, we had a caffeine fix at the Mother Road Coffeehouse, which uses the term Mother Road as a reference to U.S. Highway 66. The storefront faced the town square where the afternoon sun reflected off the massive stone walls of the courthouse. We sipped steaming coffee and watched the patrons come and go. I wondered what stories they could tell, especially when I saw the man with the long hair and graying beard. The head band and the army fatigues looked right out of the ’60s. At first I thought he might be a vagrant looking for a warm place. But he chatted with the staff and the owner, and he sounded more like an educated businessman. When he left the shop, he walked across the street, unlocked the driver’s side of a shiny ’55 Chevy, backed out of the diagonal parking stall and drove off down the street. Untold stories rolled out of sight.
          The perimeter of the square was full of antique shops decorated for Christmas. Inside the shops, the booths were stuffed with old Santa mugs, bubble ornaments and decorated Christmas stockings. The best discovery of the day was a tandem banana-seat bike that conjured up images of a Christmas morning over fifty years ago — images of kids in pajamas jumping up and down while circling shiny new bikes parked next to a Christmas tree. I touched the banana seat and gave the bike a once-over. I couldn’t figure out if the wheelie attachment on the back of the bike was needed or if it was just for show.
Banana-seat tandem bicycle with wheelie bar

          Our drive took us to Bentonville, Arkansas, and the quirky stuff just kept popping up. We checked into the 21C, a trendy museum/hotel filled with unique art. Its location complements travelers like us who planned to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville. Contemporary art filled the lobby and vestibules, and spilled out onto the front plaza as well. Our favorite piece of art was the 1962 Fleetwood Cadillac Limousine parked near the entry. The paint job looked a little weird so we approached it, while the hotel doorman followed us to explain the car. His pride was evident.
1962 Fleetwood Cadillac Limousine covered with coins - 21c Hotel art - Bentonville, Arkansas
           “Let me show you the finish on this piece of art!” he exclaimed as he hurried ahead of us. “Look closely at all these circles. They’re coins that are glued all over the car! I’ve been told the artist, Monica Mahoney, wanted to celebrate Sam Walton’s Five and Dime store and the founding of Walmart. Look here at this Indian-head penny. It’s the only one we can find.” He pointed to a spot on the hood. “We run the engine once a day and we take the car through the wash once in a while. This car is eighteen feet long and it weighs a bunch with all that money glued to it.”
           My favorite art on the inside of the hotel was a screen at the elevator lobby. It was constructed of fan units removed from old CPU’s from personal computers. All of the little fans were wired up to a noise sensor. The more noise that I created caused more fans to turn on. If I clapped or shouted, the whole bunch began spinning.
          The American art at the Crystal Bridges Museum was almost overwhelming. In the middle of a several-hour trek through the museum, we were at the spot where the art began to chronologically switch from traditional to contemporary. We thought our eyes were deceiving us when we noticed an unusual reflection in the museum glass. It appeared as multiple giant Pinocchios marching around a corner of the museum. On closer inspection, we discovered an eight-foot wooden Pinocchio sculpture of Disneyesque appearance, and the surreal moment came when I snapped a picture of my wife standing next to it (she is the one on the right). I realized I was viewing an artistic re-creation of Walt Disney's re-creation of a mythical wooden puppet that comes to life . . . quirky, to say the least.

Pinocchio and my wife (she is on the right)

           The trip ended with my having to deal with two pet peeves: Christmas marketing music and leaf blowers.
           The music was on the speakers in a cozy breakfast/bakery near the hotel. It was early December, and the standard fare of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Burl Ives singing Have a Jolly Holly Christmas added to the song blitz. The lyrics haunted me all the way back to Kansas City.
           The leaf blowers were not hard to miss as we walked the multiple nature trails on the museum grounds. A small army of landscape workers blasted air through the motorized tubes to push the fallen leaves off the walkways, street, and grass edge on the road to the museum. I guessed there were several trillion leaves on the ground of the 120-acres of woods, so the workers should have plenty of job security. Their equipment droned for hours, pushing leaves from one side of the grounds to the other, at a museum that touts its green initiatives.
           On the last morning, I arose early to capture some morning-light photos of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house which was relocated onto the museum grounds (more details on it in a future blog). The floating mist hung above the Crystal Spring pond in the stillness of the natural setting, but as I walked closer to the museum and the house, the noise warned me that the leaf blower crew had already started their work. I approached a vantage point above the Wright-designed house and spied a worker blowing leaves off the front walk. He stopped, placed his leaf blower near the front door, then went inside. Frank Lloyd Wright, nature lover and creator of Organic Architecture had to be rolling in his grave.
Leaf blower at entry to Wright-designed house